PPPart 1 Friday and Saturday

ProgPower Europe has been part of my calendar since 2005. I’ve always looked forward to my annual pilgrimage to this top quality event. In the main, this year’s list of bands left me a bit cold to be honest when I first looked at it, but I’ve never bothered about that. It’s impossible that fourteen bands are all going to be to everyone’s taste, but every time I’ve come there have been nice surprises and hidden jewels.

Thanks to popular demand, the tradition has started to develop of a pre-party on the Thursday, and this year Nehl Aëlin, the creative lady of Akphaezya, gave a show. I arrived on the Friday, and so for me the event started with Damian Wilson of Threshold and Headspace renown. In line with his current tour, it was an acoustic set. But this was far more than just a man and his guitar. Damian transcended that with his music and narrative. His emphasis was on “friends getting together”, and he spoke on many diverse subjects including beards and depression. But although he spoke of difficult subjects and his songs were reflective and melancholic, this was an upbeat show, full of bonhomie and good English humour. Both on and off stage, Damian is Mr Personality. And what a voice! Clear and expressive, Damian entertained us throughout with his collection of folk songs. He called them that himself but the feelings that went into them took us into ethereal progressive spheres. I have never heard anyone precede a song with a story about something he wasn’t going to sing but he did this. So instead of “The Wall”, he played the utterly compelling, personal and thought-provoking “Somebody”, a cover of the Depeche Mode song. Mr Entertainer finished by inviting a guest prog guitarist from the audience onto the stage before singing the well-known “folk song”, the Rolling Stones’s “Satisfaction” before carrying out a stage dive. This was, as he put it earlier, a party with friends.

People had come from all across the world to see Shadow Gallery play, in fact so much so that the JC Sjiwa club was sold out. Something around 450 spectators waited patiently as “Bohemian Rhapsody” was played out. Then Shadow Gallery came on in a blaze of glory. Big, brash and bombastic in their sound, the sextet proceeded to play for two hours and ten minutes. The drummer and bassist, who bore an unfortunate resemblance to Jimmy Savile, punched out an unstoppable rhythm, the keyboard work was phenomenal and the guitarists combined to complete the complex prog metal production. The singer was decent too. Unfortunately I wasn’t so keen on the songs, and although there were signs of animation at the front of the audience, it wasn’t rippling through the room. Shadow Gallery were for me a little plastic, going through the gestures that they needed to go through and lacking the natural warmth that Damian Wilson had spread earlier. As the set developed, I observed a pattern in the songs. The template song, typified by “Mystery”, started with a well-balanced singer / heavy instrumentalist combination, then the guitarists would sing cheesily in unison – “sing it long, sing it loud” and all that – before letting themselves go and entertaining us with sublime instrumental work. There were exceptions, notably “New World Order” which as well as being an atmospheric and anthemic song, featured guest vocalist Stefan from Wolverine. Unwittingly, Stefan managed to put Shadow Gallery’s vocalist to shame. The game was raised a little with some songs from their “Tyranny” album. Once they set themselves free from the mindless power metal sections, the music was rich. But lacklustre and kitsch fare was never far away, no more so than the final song of the main set where to reflect the Christmasiness of it, the crowd was treated to fake snowfall. Why? Was this to keep the Scandinavians ProgPower visitors happy? The encore began with a rocking Iron Maiden cover “Two Minutes to Midnight” and featured the return of Stefan who outdid the main singer again in the charisma stakes. Finishing with “Gold Dust” and “Crystalline Dream”, Shadow Gallery showcased the strength and weakness of their music: big, all-embracing sounds and tight musicianship, but at the same time inane, corny and uninspiring vocals and songs.

Friday evening ended unexpectedly with Damian Wilson organising a sing-a-long outside the club. Everyone sang Iron Maiden’s “Evil that I Do” as Damian played, sang and led the cheerleading. This is ProgPower – friends together.

In 2006, I shared a room at ProgPower with Danny Boonstra, the drummer of Dimaeon. Through hard work, persistence and by popular demand this long-standing Dutch band now found themselves opening up Saturday’s show. A dark and heavy atmosphere was created from the off. The tall and wiry singer growled and shadow boxed. The band’s sense of excitement at being there transmitted itself clearly. Danny beat the drums of impending destruction. The growly, doomy bass line suggested that this was the Deathfest, not ProgPower. The mood changed as “The Ruins of Mankind” unfolded. Again it was potent, but here there was a melodic touch. I was starting to see the progressive side of this band, who proceeded from here on to engage us with delicate technical guitar work and sweeping, mobile passages. But behind it all was a dark and sinister face, and so “Terra” began with its technical death metal with growls bordering on a black metal style. The combination of thunderous noises and careful technicality was intriguing. Mellow electric guitar work with a slight infusion of jazz, deep rock sounds and a core of thumping death metal: Dimaeon took us where they wanted to go. There was no inevitability about this. I wasn’t so struck on the clean vocals, which seemed superfluous, but the wiry man had great presence, supplementing his ferocious growls with his expressive movements and manic stares. He then promised us “a hell of a ride” with “Collapse of the Anthropocene”, and that’s what we got. Danny led the assault as again we were treated to a mixture of ingredients. An atmosphere of crunchy death, prog and passion was generated. This was another display of technical metal excellence. My only disappointment was that the final song “Cascades” didn’t take us anywhere new and therefore was a bit of an anti-climax, but this was still a substantial and interesting set from a talented band.

All I knew about Verbal Delirium beforehand was that they were from Greece. One guitarist, three keyboard players and a drummer came on stage and put out a series of colourful melodies, dominated by the delicate sounds from the piano player. The sound was ambient and progressive, and featured the flute and saxophone at different points, but I just couldn’t identify with this at all. I walked away and came back later. By this stage, the atmosphere was moody and with the sound of the wind and the flute, there was an exotic and mystical touch here. The band had a nice personality but for me there was a lack of hooks or punch, even in a light progressive sense. This might make background music but Verbal Delirium’s live show did not connect with me. I did find one fellow spectator who was drawn in by the band’s ambient sounds, but he did say that his delirium may have been caused by being drunk. It’s perhaps fortunate then that the band is not called Verbal Diarrhoea.

Oddland were selected in a vote by festival-goers after Boil split up and dropped out. The lead singer, who resembled a Finnish Gary Barlow, was fulsome in his gratitude, which was nice. The set started strongly. Very tight and full of bass, the riffage was technical. A rumbling thunder ran through the background. The progressions were slightly off the wall and aided by the naturally menacing vocal tones, I was reminded a little of Sentenced. But this was heavier. There was always an interesting mix of light and dark. Explosions led to mellow and atmospheric sections, always ensuring interesting patterns. The band matched the performance with plenty of vigour and headbanging where appropriate. After a nice intro to “Sewers”, the band delivered the dark and spooky track that they promised, complete with background noises. The set finished with “Ire”, which featured more thrilling guitar work. The patterns were delightful as they had been for all the songs. There was a little bit of Opeth here. The build-up was magnificent. I guess the question could be asked whether Oddland are too technical or just totally absorbing. I’d say the latter. As Mr Barlow (the real one) might say, they nailed it. Take that!

Here was a band who played at Brutal Assault. I’ve heard many good things said about the French band Hacride but for no good reason they’ve always passed me by. A calm and patient ambiance led to a burst of extremity and then back to a calm mood. The mood changed back, hair flailed on stage and the show stayed in the extreme intensity position to the end. The band had a well-manufactured appearance to them, and the singer, who adopted the “man” position at the front of the stage as he rested his elbow on his outstretched leg and leaned forward, approached his audience. Modern metalcore met prog. Crunching beats and metal banging developed into a mind-blowing emotional chorus. The technical work was tight, and broke out of extremity into doominess and at one point a section reminiscent of “Tubular Bells” but this really was about ferocity and aggression. I loved the progressive build-ups and explosions which breathed intensity, excitement and passion. My one reservation was with the clean hardcore-style vocals, which were weak. But to walls of heaviness, the movement was fluid and a superb mix was delivered of aggression and technicality.”My Enemy” was dark and dangerous, a dose of doomy metalcore even. The vocalist sang to the metal heavens. Jungle drums announced “Edification of the Fall”. Sparks continued to fly and heads continued to bang. More flexing of metal muscles and intricate guitar work occurred on the final heavy blast “On the Threshold of Death”. Hacride’s show had been powerful and intense, yet strangely I didn’t feel like selling my soul to the band. Maybe it was just too clinical and choreographed.

From Hacride to Haken. Are they “karaoke prog”, as someone once wrote, or the ultimate up-to-date statement on the genre? I only recently rediscovered them after listening to their second album “Visions” again. I didn’t remember it going much further than its predecessor “Aquarius” and was therefore a little disappointed with it. The quirkiness and music-hall nature of the music didn’t match up in my mind with the overall weightiness. I therefore hadn’t listened to the latest album “The Mountain” but had been told it’s different in a more cohesive and uniform way, suggesting that the band has taken stock of its direction. I very much looked forward to seeing them this evening. In fact it’s easy to summarise. Haken wiped the floor with the place. Heavier in sound than I remembered from seeing them a couple of years ago, they operated as a complete unit, extracting subtleties and delights at every twist and turn. I’ve never warmed much to the singer or his comments but his vocals are outstanding and as for the instrumentals, they are out of this world. Haken operate as a unit. “In Memoriam” was good, but every single drop of magnificence was extracted from “Drowning in the Flood”. Briefly it was a case of drowning in the sound, but this hurdle was overcome quickly. To a huge instrumental backbone, the vocals soared to the heavens before the keyboard player took over and brought us dreamy, hazy days. With intricacies from the guitarists, this was the first time at this year’s ProgPower that my emotions really began to rise. The lead singer exercised vocal gymnastics with the keyboard player, who did a little barber shop routine. The performance was playful and the fairground routine was there but delightfully juxtaposed jazzy piano and bass work and a funky guitar sound. The bassist also joined in the harmonies and maybe unwittingly was part of the visual show, with his long blond hair and static frame. The vocal harmonies alone would be worthy of review, so rich were they. This was a show of unfolding magic. The dramatic show ended with “Visions”, a complete package of emotions with the band’s natural fun, a bit of mayhem and sheer technical brilliance. Roll up, roll up….the fairground element was there but this performance was memorable for its musical and technical intricacies. Guitarist Charlie, who stayed in the background weaving patterns, saw that this was going well and high five’d the keyboard player at one point. Controlled emotion and drama finally brought this spell-binding performance to an end. Haken had gone up at least five notches since I last saw them play live.

Whenever I’ve heard anything by Fates Warning, Saturday’s headlining band, I always thought it was fine but I was never tempted to take the matter further. Maybe a live show would put the band’s music into context. The band came on stage at 10.05pm. The scene was set from the start. The vocals were flat. The instrumentalists were good however and provided the necessary metal rumblings but lacked animation. The singer kept looking down, maybe at his set list, and played a lot with his hair. All the expected big sound of a US heavy prog metal band was there. Little attempt was made to tell us what we were listening to. This evidently was something we were expected to know. When the two guitarists and bassist operated in unison, patterns emerged and the drums made it exciting. Time after time the introduction of the unrounded and indeed unpleasant vocals spoilt the songs. The problem is that they are loaded lyrically and seem to have a story so that aspect of it is important. Yet the songs themselves had qualities which have clearly resulted in a healthy base of fans, some of whom were represented here. I did identify “Another Perfect Day” and “Point of View”, and found them vacuous and crass. Yet “The Eleventh Hour” and “Firefly” have good structures and melodic properties which make the band’s popularity easy to understand. There was a degree of audience participation, to be fair. I cannot say whether this was a case of loyalty towards the band or appreciation of the show, but personally I thought the singer only found the right range on rare occasions and there were no obvious hooks so I didn’t share the enthusiasm. There was an encore, and as the singer wailed, the instrumentalists again created patterns and provided the energy, summing up the way the show had gone as a whole.

(Review Andrew Doherty)

(Photos with thanks Håkan Lundbom & Deb Halford)  

Part 2 here http://www.avenoctum.com/2013/10/progpower-europe-baarlo-holland-61013/